Study: Optimism Is Overrated

It may help more with persistence than actual performance
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted May 3, 2015 7:00 AM CDT
LeBron James gives a thumbs up to a fan.   (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

(Newser) – A new study delivers a somewhat depressing message: Positive thinking may not be all it's cracked up to be. "I kept hearing about how optimistic mindset was so great, but then you think about all the times that striving for accuracy might be better for the individual," researcher Elizabeth Tenney says in a press release and podcast from the University of Utah. She offers the example of a person standing at a crevasse: "Do you really want that person to be optimistic about their chances of making it over this crevasse, or do you want them to be accurate about their chances?" To reach her conclusions, she conducted multiple experiments in which "predictor" subjects were charged with guessing how well "task completer" subjects would do on a given project.

The predictors were convinced that the more optimistic task completers would do better than others, but the results didn't bear that out, BPS Research Digest reports. In one case, task completers were asked to do some Where's Waldo? searches, Tenney says in the podcast. Predictors figured optimistic task completers would do 33% better at the work, BPS notes. In fact, the optimistic participants did spend longer trying to find the character—but they only performed 5% better than others, and that wasn't statistically significant. "What we concluded from that was that optimism seems to help persistence, but not necessarily performance as much as people would expect," Tenney says in the podcast, as notes. (If optimism doesn't get you ahead, at least it may be good for your heart.)

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